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Brian Urlacher: Combining Old School and New School in Chicago, and Probably a Spot in Canton

Chicago Bears v Atlanta Falcons

Brian Urlacher announced his retirement today, after 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears, and after a brief period of time during which the team he did not re-sign with the team, and was a potential free agent who could have tried to latch on with another team at the end of his career.

“After spending a lot of time this spring thinking about my NFL future, I have made a decision to retire,” he wrote in a statement. “Although I could continue playing, I’m not sure I would bring a level of performance or passion that’s up to my standards. When considering this, along with the fact that that I could retire after a 13-year career wearing only one jersey for such a storied franchise, my decision became pretty clear.”

In doing so, Urlacher joins Bill George, Dick Butkus, and Mike Singletary as central figures in the middle of the Monsters of the Midway mythology. By the end of his career, when we saw him plodding along on an interception return last year, getting by mostly on his veteran guile and experience, he reminded of an aging Dick Butkus. Still bringing it hard, but with age and injuries taking their toll.

It’s easy, then, to view Urlacher as old school tied to all those other muddied, bloodied middle linebackers in Chicago. He certainly had the attitude to make plays from anywhere, and provide leadership. He was also new school, though, part of a new generation of linebacker. He was the prototype for the new generation of middle linebacker in the “Tampa-Two”, where Urlacher’s speed and ability to play in space held together the defense down the middle.

In high school, he went from undersized receiver to 210 pound safety by the time he got only two D-I scholarship offers, and chose New Mexico. With the Lobos, he was a do-everything safety who also caught touchdown passes as a receiver and returned kicks. His senior year, he was a Jim Thorpe award finalist, given to the nation’s best defensive back.

Many pro scouts saw him as a linebacker, though the consensus was on the outside. In fact, that is where he started in the preseason in 2000, before he was benched in favor of Roosevelt Colvin. Three games into his rookie year, though, he was moved to the middle linebacker position for his first start against the New York Giants. Thirteen tackles and a sack later, and his place was cemented. From that September day in 2000 until this year ended, he manned the middle of the Chicago defense, missing only 26 games over those 13 years. Urlacher won defensive rookie of the year award in 2001, then was the dominant force on an improbable 13-3 team in 2001, where the Bears led the league in points allowed.

His speed and athleticism, along with his competitive drive, were the perfect combination for the middle of the “Tampa-Two” once Lovie Smith came in as head coach. In 2005 and 2006, the Bears made the playoffs twice and the Super Bowl based almost entirely on the defense. In 2005, the offense was 31st in points per drive but the team managed to win 11 games. In 2006, the Bears went to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman at quarterback.

Urlacher missed the rest of the year in 2009 after a wrist injury in the season opener. At the time, he was 31 years old, at an age when plenty of middle linebackers begin to fall apart. He came back, entering the third phase of his career. Without it, I am not sure he would have made the Hall of Fame; with it, he garnered two more pro bowl appearances. He will probably now be in Canton as a result. I say probably only because of the vagaries and politics of the voting system. He will be eligible for election at the exact same time as Ray Lewis. We have seen voters in the past not go for multiple players at the same position. His credentials are certainly there–every inside linebacker with at least eight pro bowl appearances is or will be enshrined.

My only hesitance is that Randy Gradishar (7 pro bowl appearances, defensive player of the year in 1977) is not in, and that going by awards, Zach Thomas (7 pro bowls, 5 all pros) might then split some votes at the position. Well, that, and the fact that only three inside middle/linebackers who started their careers after the merger have been selected for enshrinement (Lambert, Singletary, and Harry Carson), compared to six who started their careers between 1950 and 1969.

I do not personally think Thomas gets in, but he has a similar pro bowl and all pro history to Urlacher. I do think Gradishar should have been in long ago. I think if you had polled people in 1982, they would have said Gradishar was a sure Hall of Famer. Gradishar was the second best linebacker of his generation, behind Jack Lambert, and that may have impacted his chances initially.

Urlacher should avoid Gradishar’s fate, and being considered the second best at a position for thirteen years should be good for a speech at Canton. Not bad for a little-regarded and undersized player that went from safety in college to joining the storied history of middle linebackers in Chicago, and along the way helped define the position in the modern passing era.

His high school coach, before he ever took a snap in the NFL, said that “[Urlacher] could have a Hall of Fame career and still wonder what he could’ve done better.” Thirteen years later, the first part is satisfied. Let’s hope he doesn’t wonder to hard, and enjoys the fruits of a job well done.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]

 

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